Washington Nationals are talkin’ baseball — championship-style

The Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg, LaVar Arrington, Mike Wise and Jonathan Forsythe discuss debate the Nationals’ growing rivalry with the Phillies. (Post Sports Live)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist March 17, 2013

Few big leaguers are more modest than Ryan Zimmerman. Maybe he’s just been sitting near Jayson Werth’s full proud mane for too long, or maybe he put up with enough losing years that he got sick of humble, but as the expectations for the Washington Nationals have changed, so has Zimmerman’s attitude.

Perhaps the incessant optimism of Manager Davey Johnson or the prickly cockiness of General Manager Mike Rizzo has rubbed off on him. Maybe it’s even the two prodigies, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, who have gradually altered Zimmerman as he has watched them play down their best moments and talk about how much better they expect to be.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Whatever has transformed the Nats, Zimmerman reflects it. For a month, he has watched all the talent in the Nats’ spring training camp, with four players who might start on other teams but can’t get off the bench, plus a bunch of young studs who’ll go to Class AA to play together.

“It looks like we’re set for the next eight to 10 years,” says Zimmerman, chuckling in disbelief at his own out-of-character words. “In the future, our toughest decisions may be who to re-sign. We have so many good players here there’s no room for them all, but you don’t want to lose any of them.

“I’ve been talking to D.C. buddies and they say every other commercial, every other conversation is about our club,” says Zimmerman, noting that rough seasons for the Wizards and Capitals, and salary cap penalties for the Redskins have muted talk about those teams. “If we can be a winner for 10 years, Washington will be a baseball-crazy town. Basically, it’s our time now.

“In two weeks, we have to go up there and do what we know how to do.”

Perhaps Zimmerman was the last holdout for humility. In sports, a room has a tone. Natitude started as an ad gimmick, dumb to some.

But it stuck because it fit players with presence such as Ian Desmond and Gio Gonzalez.

Now, the Nats’ internal sense of self is clear. Last season was just their start.

Have they gotten ahead of themselves? My job is to report, not pretend to see the future. Everything you hear in this camp bespeaks a team that thinks it’s about to start a long belligerent run and doesn’t care who knows. From the day the Nats signed reliever Rafael Soriano for $28 million, when they didn’t absolutely need him, the clear-a-path gauntlet has been thrown down.

The Nats joke openly about the comments by Jimmy Rollins that his Phillies would have won the NL East except for injuries. “J-Dub [Werth] said, ‘Well, we’d have won 120 if we’d been healthy,’ ” Zimmerman said.

Added Werth, walking past: “We were more hurt than the Phillies were last year, but we’re a deeper team. Our bench won it for us last year.”

In the past week, the Nats sent players such as Anthony Rendon (hitting .375) and slugger Matt Skole to the minors.

When the Nats sent their B team to play the Tigers on Sunday, interesting reports filtered back. Detroit’s lineup, fresh from the World Series, had Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez. The Nats outslugged them, 12-10, with two homers by fourth outfielder Tyler Moore, plus a farm-hand onslaught.

The best teams, the multi-time champions, often developed a similar air about themselves, but usually not until they’ve accomplished a lot more. Foreshadowing or foreboding? We’ll start to find out soon enough.

That crack you may have heard, all the way in D.C., was Johnson announcing the start of the Nats’ season of seriousness. On Monday, opening day is two weeks away.

“It’s my time, boys. The party’s over,” Davey said.

“You start grinding two weeks before the end of spring training. For about a week, I go to the whip,” he said, meaning he’d play each game almost as though it were the regular season. “All my spring trainings are the same way. Then, you can back off the last week. But I want a week [of slack] to play with if I don’t feel good about ’em.”

As a player, Johnson saw his Orioles get off to 12-1, 20-8, 22-8 and 7-1 starts that all led to the World Series. As a manager, he has had teams that began 6-1, 8-1, 20-4, 6-2, 22-7, 15-6, 20-11, 11-2, 9-2, 5-1, 11-6 and last year 14-4. That’s nuts. In baseball, 10 games over .500 can put you in contention all year. Johnson teams often flying that high in April.

Like many here, Johnson can’t resist looking out much further than opening day.

After the 2011 season, Johnson said he thought the Nats’ farm system was about a season and a half away from being “where the really good organizations are,” by which he meant teams the great old Orioles teams that were so loaded they had to keep Don Baylor and Bobby Grich in AAA.

“Now, we’re about half-a-year away from where we want to get,” Johnson said. “Look at the team we’ll start at Double-A with [hitters] Anthony Rendon and his Rice teammate Rick Hague, Matt Skole, Michael Taylor and Destin Hood and [pitchers] Sammy Solis, Matt Purke and Nathan Karns. The talent level is such that it could go straight from there to the big leagues. Later this year, we could be approaching Grich-Baylor territory.”

After he says such brash words, Johnson doesn’t even knock on wood. But, these days, none of the Nats do.

That’s not the organization’s stance. Is such a level of confidence productive? It’s much too soon to judge.

But in baseball, one pattern never changes: Fearful teams think they need all the luck they can get; the best teams believe they make their own.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
boswell.

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